Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Thrill of the Grill

With the Memorial Day holiday widely considered to be the start of summer, many vegetarians will have cookouts in their near future. Cookouts can be as simple (veggie burgers and all the trimmings) or as elaborate (marinated portabella mushrooms, veggie kabobs, even pizza) as you want them to be.

There are any number of sources for ideas and recipes for vegetarian grilling. Vegetarian Times magazine seems to do one or more articles every summer; entire books have been written about it; and of course the internet has a wealth of recipes available at the click of a mouse. I have just a few personal suggestions to add --

You really should grill some corn on the cob. It's so delicious, and so easy. There are all kinds of suggestions on how to do this. Some say to peel back the shucks, remove the silks, and re-wrap the shucks around the ear. Sometimes it is recommended that you soak the corn in its shucks before grilling. But simply shucking and then grilling works fine, too.

All manner of elaborate spreads can be used on corn ... my favorite is umeboshi plum paste, spread very thinly across the ear. It’s much less messy and fattening than margerine, and tangy-salty-delicious. But remember, spread it sparingly -- otherwise it can be overpowering.

With veggie burgers or dogs, the goal is merely to heat them through, and to imbue them with the smoky grill flavor. So don’t leave them on the grill as long as you would conventional burgers and dogs. Also, because they do not have nearly as much fat as meat, they can dry out. I avoid this by rubbing each one with a generous coating of vegetable (usually canola) oil.

It's fun to wrap food in foil and cook it on the grill that way. Tofurky beer brats -- wrapped up with onions, peppers, beer and seasonings – turn out great when cooked like this. Tofurkey has the recipe online here.

Plan ahead to make the most of the coals. If you're firing up the grill anyway, why not take along an eggplant to roast so you can make baba ganoush (eggplant dip) later? A good recipe is available at the FatFree Vegan Kitchen blog. Or roast some red peppers to have on hand for sandwiches later. Or roast heads of garlic (drizzle them with olive oil and wrap in foil, just as you would for roasting them in the oven) for a tasty spread.

Finally, a very personal tip. If you're starting to wilt in the sun, just volunteer to stay inside to make sure nothing goes wrong with the central air-conditioning. I'll probably be in there, too, but you can never have too many people looking out for the central air....

What are your best tips for a successful summer cookout?

Friday, May 25, 2007

"Bad" vegetables

Some people seem to think that because you're a vegetarian, you must love all vegetables. That is not the case with me. There are a few vegetables that I simply can't stand -- and unfortunately for me, they seem to turn up in quite a few vegetarian dishes.

My dislike of peas -- or as I sometimes call them, "little green pellets of Satan" -- is a running joke among my friends. I'm not sure why I don't like them; maybe I had a run-in with strained peas as an infant. I actually quite like snow peas, but any other kind makes me wrinkle up my nose in disgust. I can stomach them if I have to, but most of the time I pick them out of a dish.

But far more than peas, I hate olives. Luckily for my many olive-loving friends, as they always get my cast-offs when they appear on my plate at a restaurant. The mere taste of an olive -- God forbid that nasty olive juice infects the rest of a dish -- can ruin my palate for an entire meal. I'm not sure I could choke down more than one if my life depended on it.

Another hated vegetable is green pepper. Red pepper, I'm fine with. But green pepppers are, well, gross. Alas, they seem to be included in every grilled-vegetable sub in existence, which necessitates a special order or picking them out if they show up unannounced.

I've actually never had brussels sprouts, but somehow just looking at them, I know I'd hate them! I should have one just to see, because it's not nice to judge what I've never experienced, but looking at them and smelling them, I just never want to do it.

Over the years, though, I've learned to love several vegetables that I used to not like. I remember in high school sniffing that "I don't eat little trees" when presented with broccoli and cauliflower. Now I eat them all the time. The same with mushrooms -- once hated, now one of my favorite vegetables.

I'm also not a big fan of polenta. It's OK, and I can eat it if I have to, but it's just not something I care for. It's not as widespread a vegetarian staple as tofu or tempeh, but I have been unhappily confronted with it as the only vegetarian entree on a menu.

Are there any vegetables or vegetarian staples that you simply can't abide? As a vegetarian, is it hard for you to avoid them?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Salt of the Earth

A while back, a friend sent me a link to the Salt of the Month Club … but alas, it turned out to be a fake from The Onion. Still, I check the link every so often, just in case it's now for real.

There easily could be a salt of the month club. Gourmet shops such as Chapel Hill’s A Southern Season and specialty Web sites such as Saltworks feature an unbelievable array of salts. There’s grey salt, black salt, pink salt ... salt from Hawaii; salt from the Himalayas. Smoked salt, salt with truffles, salt with green tea.

The publishing world is aware of the trend. Yesterday, Cassandra passed along an article from the June 2007 issue of Natural Health magazine, with ideas for creating seasoned salts by blending, infusing, smoking or roasting salt with other flavoring agents.

And in its March 2007 issue, Cooking Light magazine did an article focused on cooking with salt. The recipe for Sweet and Salty Peanut Chocolate Chunk Cookies still haunts me. Luckily, it’s available online here.

It’s especially interesting that these health-conscious magazines are featuring articles on salt, since the seasoning has a less savory side – its effect on blood pressure.

A USDA report on salt intake points out that "Over 30 years of scientific evidence shows that a diet containing more than 6 grams of salt per day (2,400 milligrams of sodium – the amount in a little more than a teaspoon of salt) is associated with elevated blood pressure. Increased blood pressure can lead to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease." Cooking Light has more information about salt and health here.

This is serious - enough to give even a dedicated salt vampire like me pause.

On the other hand, these recent magazine articles focus on using salt very consciously – adding a bit of very flavorful salt at the point where it will have the most impact. That way less can be used to achieve a satisfying flavor.

But this may not make a large difference. One of the USDA’s most eye-opening statistics is that only about 20 percent of the average person’s sodium intake comes from salt added at the table. About 75 percent comes from processed foods.

So keeping an eye on sodium content when you’re buying such things as frozen entrees and bottled salad dressings is important. You may also wish to check nutritional information for restaurant items, if it is available. And, of course, preparing as much of your own food as possible at home from fresh, healthy ingredients can also help.

How about you, readers? How concerned are you about sodium intake, and what, if anything do you do to try to minimize it?

And, if you're like me and just can't get enough salty goodness, check out the Salt Institute's page of recipe links. They're not all vegetarian, but some are. Especially noteworthy are the several recipes for preserved lemons -- Those things are saltier than salt! Mmmm.

Friday, May 18, 2007


One of my favorite annual events in Winston-Salem is this weekend: the Greek Festival. It's always a fun time of good food and festive Greek spirit.

They offer several a la carte vegetarian options alongside the souvlakis and gyros: Greek pizza, a Greek salad, spanakopita and potato wedges. But in my opinion, the best bet is always the plate meal. They've been offering a vegetable plate for several years now if you asked for it, and this year, they even have it printed up on the menu on the wall behind where you pay. For $7, you get two spanakopita squares, rice, Greek-style green beans in tomato sauce (my favorite thing!), a Greek salad, a roll and a drink. I've never come away feeling anything but full and satisfied.

Then, of course, there are the delicious Greek pastries and soft-serve ice cream with baklava topping, which I can never pass up no matter how full I am.

The festival is at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 435 Keating Drive, off Country Club Drive near Silas Creek Parkway.

Greek food is one of my favorite ethnic cuisines. I love the flavors that permeate its dishes: oregano, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, olive oil. Good, traditional Greek restaurants often have some wonderful vegetarian options, as these dishes are part of their culture. Vegetarian moussaka, grilled zucchini, skordalia (a potato and garlic spread), stuffed grape leaves and, of course, spanakopita are favorites found on many restaurant menus, including that of Athena Greek Taverna at 680 S. Stratford Rd. In fact, I think a visit is in order soon for their vegetarian moussaka, now that I've gotten myself thinking about it!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The industrious vegetarian

Condo living suits me. When house-dwelling friends are busy mowing their grass, I'm lolling on a chaise longue in air-conditioned luxury, with gin and tonic, a tray of peeled grapes and the TV remote all within easy arm's reach.

Sometimes the remote clicks to a program like The Victory Garden, and I'll dream about what it would be like to have a garden.

But wait, I don't have to just dream.... I do all the gardening I want in containers on my back deck. My favorites are herbs. They are so delicious fresh, and so expensive at the store, that it's cost-effective as well as fun to grow your own.

Plus, herbs are so easy. I haven't even gotten off the chaise longue to do any planting yet this year, and already the perennials from last year are going great:

The sage is in beautiful blue bloom; the lavender is covered in fragrant purple flowers; and the little pink pom-pom chive bossoms are just now fading away. The oregano is crowding the chives and threatening to take over its container. The rosemary is stretching toward the sky.

This weekend I'll put in this year’s crop of basil - perhaps the most satisfying herb of all to grow. Two or three sweet-basil plants will keep me in pesto all year. Just plant the basil in an all-purpose potting soil, place it in a sunny spot, and water diligently to keep it growing. In the heat of the summer I usually water every day. It will droop sadly if it gets too dry. But be sure the container drains well, too, to keep the roots from rotting. You can give basil some fertilizer from time to time to maintain the plants' vigor.

And the only other secret to keep basil going through the summer is to keep it from blooming. Once the plant blooms it seems to feel that its work is done, and it will stop producing as many tasty leaves. So when you see the flower buds forming, clip them off before they open.

Harvest basil through the summer by clipping stems just above a pair of leaves, and the plant will grow even bushier and more productive.

The National Garden Bureau has more about growing basil here.

Another excellent source for information about container gardening is The Bountiful Container by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey (Workman Publishers, 2002). Anyone interested in growing food in containers will benefit from this book.

It thoroughly covers herbs, and also vegetables, fruits and edible flowers. The authors provide many ideas for combining plants into attractive as well as practical arrangements. And they include recipes for making use of your bounty. Not all of the recipes are vegetarian, unfortunately. But vegetarian or vegan cooks will usually be able to see ways to modify the recipes to make them usable.

Readers, are you planning to grow anything - in a conventional garden or in containers - this year?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Vegging Out on the high seas

I recently went on my first cruise, the Carnival Elation. A friend who's a veteran of many cruises told me beforehand that cruises are basically "nonstop eat-a-thons." I was a little concerned about whether there would be a sufficient variety of vegetarian options to keep me satisfied. I needn't have worried, because they definitely put forth an effort for their vegetarian passengers. I did eat fish often, I must admit, but I could have eaten quite well if I had stuck solely to their vegetarian offerings.

The first lunch buffet on the ship included wonderful eggplant tarts and polenta with tomato sauce. Another day, there was vegetarian lasagna. You could always get a freshly prepared vegetarian pizza. I regret that I never got around to ordering the grilled-vegetable foccacia sandwich from the room-service menu -- it looked wonderful. I wish they had offered it at their deli counter.

A vegetarian entree was offered every night in the dining room, as well as at least one vegetarian appetizer. The eggplant and zucchini parmigiana I had the last night was fabulous -- fresh-tasting, elaborately put-together and not breaded, so it wasn't greasy at all. Vegetarian options other nights included a selection of Indian foods and black-bean echiladas.

They provided us with a BBQ lunch the day we were stopped at Half Moon Cay, the cruise line's private island. They didn't offer any vegetarian entrees then, unfortunately, but there were enough vegetarian salads and side dishes that I was more than satisfied.

According to the cruise line, the average weight gain on a cruise is 7 to 10 pounds, and I was firmly in that average. This was no doubt in large measure to the warm chocolate melting cake I got every night at dinner -- it's to-die-for. The first bite every night always made me bounce in happiness. For those trying to watch their weight, they specified lower-calorie options on the menu.

I do have to give a thumbs-down to the Orlando Airport, though. Their restaurant offerings are pretty paltry after you pass through security, which means their vegetarian options are even more paltry. There wasn't even a vegetarian sub on the menu at Miami Subs! My dining options were basically a boring green salad, a slice of pizza or a spinach calzone. I wasn't really in the mood for Italian, but that's what I had to have.

What about your experiences while traveling? Do you find it more difficult to find vegetarian options when you're on vacation?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

How sweet it is ... or isn't

With the world in bloom this May, I have been thinking about honey bees. I've always been fond of them. For one memorable school project, I designed an experiment to study their color preferences - no bees were harmed, of course. Neither was I, since honey bees are basically gentle creatures that prefer not to sting. And today I still enjoy honey from my father's hives.

But that puts me at odds with many vegans who avoid using honey, since it is an animal product. As Jo Stepaniak writes of honey in an Ask Jo! column, "from a vegan perspective there is no justifiable rationale for using it."

But there is another point of view. A column by Mark Hawthorne in Satya magazine argues that vegans' "public avoidance of honey is hurting us as a movement."

The advocacy group Vegan Outreach takes a similar view: "We tend to think that making an issue about honey allows people to marginalize vegans as being in favor of 'insect rights.' Most people won't yet face the pain and suffering involved in meat. Equating meat with honey probably makes the vegan case nonsensical to the average person."

It's an interesting argument. But that is not the only thought buzzing around my head lately.

Honey bees are in trouble.

A Washington Post article, "Mystery Ailment Strikes Honeybees," details how "a mysterious illness is killing tens of thousands of honeybee colonies across the country." The ailment, dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, is such a serious issue that the N.C. Beekeepers' Association has created a special section on its page of links to keep track of articles on CCD.

And if the bees are in trouble, we may all be in trouble. After all, these bees are responsible for pollinating many of the fruits and vegetables that humans eat. According to figures from N.C. State University, "Honey bees are the most important insect pollinator for crops grown in North Carolina," directly accounting for nearly 68 percent - $88 million - of the fruits and vegetables grown in North Carolina each year.

Readers, what do you think? Do you feel strongly that honey should be excluded from a vegan diet? And do you have any ideas what we might be able to do as individuals - as comsumers or as gardeners - to help the beleagured bees?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Muesli Musings

"What is the difference between granola and muesli?" I wondered one day over a hastily packed lunch of one or the other.

"Granola is for hippies and muesli is for Euro-trash," answered a quick-witted friend.

And it turns out he was right, mostly. Both are basically a mix of grains such as rolled oats, with fresh and/or dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. Moistened with milk or yogurt - vegans can of course use non-dairy versions - either one makes a quick, tasty, filling and nutritious breakfast (or other meal). The main difference I've found, other than the hippie/Euro-trash divide, is that granola is usually baked and crispy, while muesli is raw.

Pre-packaged granola and muesli can be found in grocery and health-food stores everywhere. But it's also very easy and fun to mix up your own. The Meatout Mondays e-mail recently had a recipe for Very Berry Muesli. With the local strawberry crop starting to come in, this is a great opportunity to put them to use. Here is the recipe from the newsletter:

2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups nondairy milk (soy, rice, or almond milk)
1 peach or nectarine, diced
2 apricots or plums, diced
1 cup berries (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, etc.)
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ (optional)

Mix oats and nondairy milk together in large bowl.
Set aside the mixture while you prepare fruit (you can also save in refrigerator overnight).
Combine all ingredients.
Eat immediately or refrigerate for later (will keep for several days).

And, now that the granola vs. muesli question is settled, I’m looking for an answer to a pressing question that another friend and I have been discussing: What is the difference between a highball and a cocktail?